London- Monaco have made a staggering amount of money from transfers this summer and the rumours continue to swirl about Thomas Lemar leaving for Arsenal and Kylian Mbappé joining Real Madrid. Even if their frenzied selling stops now, manager Leonardo Jardim will have to rebuild and re-energise a team that has won Ligue 1, made it to the Champions League semi-finals and then lost £150m worth of talent in three months.
Mendy (£52m), Tiemoué Bakayoko (£39.6m) and Bernardo Silva (£43.6m) have generated the biggest fees so far, but one shouldn’t underestimate how much Monaco will miss players such as Valère Germain (who has joined Marseille for £6.80m) and Nabil Dirar (who is off to Fenerbahce for £4m); the depth they provided last season will be sorely missed, especially if Monaco progress in the Champions League and in France’s two cup competitions.
The club have been proactive in finding replacements, with Youri Tielemans joining from Anderlecht for £21.5m and Terence Kongolo arriving from Feyenoord for £11.5m. Tielemans, a 20-year-old Belgium international, has the dynamism and attacking flair required to become an immediate upgrade on Bakayoko in central midfield; while the versatile Kongolo, who was the youngest player to represent Holland at the last World Cup, can play at left-back or centre-back. Monaco also have a clutch of highly touted loanees returning, including Rony Lopes (Lille), Adama Traoré (Rio Ave) and Allan Saint-Maximin (Bastia). Their spells away were a bit of mixed bag, but given the lack of attacking talent brought in this summer, Jardim will clearly rely on them to some extent.
Monaco’s success in the upcoming season – which starts in earnest on Saturday when they face Paris Saint-Germain in the Trophée des Champions in Tangier – will depend on Jardim’s tactical approach. In his first season at the club, in 2014-15, the team were quite dour and negative. They advanced to the quarter-finals of the Champions League but only really started to impress once Silva, Yannick Carrasco and Anthony Martial were given free rein in attack. The departures of Ferreira Carrasco and Martial – along with Layvin Kurzawa and Geoffrey Kondogbia – the following summer left them lacking in identity the 2015-16 season, when they had to rely on a raft of underwhelming loanees.
The story of Monaco’s achievements last season, however, needs little retelling. Jardim took the bold steps of bringing back Radamel Falcao after his frustrating loan spells with Manchester United and Chelsea, signing Mendy from Marseille and bringing in Djibril Sidibé from Lille to build a 4-4-2 that was attack-minded to say the least. They overhauled the mighty Paris Saint-Germain to win the league and made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League as a result, but now Jardim must once again demonstrate his ability to construct a first XI and squad from the set of players he has been given.
While blessed with the effervescence of Mbappé and the presence of Falcao, the manager is unlikely to deviate from the 4-4-2 system that served him so well last season. Tielemans (or João Moutinho) will replace Bakayoko in midfield and one of Kongolo or Jorge (who was signed from Flamengo for £8m in January) can step in for Mendy at full-back.
What complicates matters, however, is the role that Silva played in the team. Nominally the right-sided midfielder, the little Portuguese playmaker was never limited by his position. He popped up on either flank or in the centre, controlling matches not merely by dint of his individual ability, but by an innate, uncanny ability to adapt his role in different situations. Adept at scoring, playing the creator, cutting inside or stretching play, Silva contributed a thoroughly unique skill-set to Monaco’s approach.
Lopes and Saint-Maximin are both capable of supreme bits of skill, but neither have really been tested at the top level. Saint-Maximin is a superb talent, but he often cut a frustrated figure at Bastia; while a season of managerial tumult and injury made Lopes’ loan spell at Lille more often than not underwhelming.
Both are useful players and full of potential (Lopes is 21, Saint-Maximin 20), and will they will certainly be called upon as the team rotates ahead of European fixtures, but they cannot really be counted upon. In Monaco’s recent friendlies, Jardim has persisted with a flat 4-4-2, with either Lopes or Saint-Maximin playing in Silva’s place. Lopes has played slightly more (Saint-Maximin has also been used as part of the front two) but perhaps a different formation would suit the squad better and not place so much responsibility on two returning loanees.
Sticking with the formation that was so successful last season might seem like the smart move, but Monaco have used different systems in each of Jardim’s years in charge and they might benefit from another tactical tinker this year. Thomas Lemar has been sublime on the left since arriving from Caen, but he also showed some promise as a No10 when he made several appearances in a central role in 2015-16. Freed from having to cover the runs of an overlapping full-back, he could improve further. Playing Lemar off the front two could also give Tielemans more licence to attack – he scored 18 goals and laid on 15 assists last season so clearly has an eye for goal – and it might help Moutinho, who occasionally struggled in a midfield two last season.
Jorge and Terence Kongolo are battling to supplant Mendy at left-back and Sidibé is firmly installed on the right. Neither situation is ideal but if the team operated with a diamond, it would force more positional responsibility from the full-backs. Sidibé struggles in that regard but Almamy Touré, who is a much more capable defender, could step up. The youth-team product is a bit too reliant on his pace in attack but he may already be a more complete player than Sidibé.
Whatever Jardim opts for tactically, a bigger concern could be a lack of depth. Much of Monaco’s rotation last season was down to Silva, Andrea Raggi and Sidibé, a trio of versatile players who can play multiple positions. However, with Silva off to Manchester City, Raggi recently turning 33 and Sidibé doing nothing to convince at left-back, the team are severely lacking in options from the bench.
The willing workers Germain and Dirar are big misses, but Guido Carrillo is a decent enough third striker, and Saint-Maximin, having played a variety of positions in Corsica, may be better suited as a bench player for the time being given his ability to play across the attack. In central midfield, academy product Kévin N’Doram has been increasingly important in friendlies, while former Lille midfielder Soualiho Meïté has also been used extensively, completing a massive overhaul of the side.
The bottom line is that, whether with changed tactics, a less attacking philosophy or some degree of continuity, Jardim will be forced to rely on an even younger squad. It would be foolish to expect the team to contend on multiple fronts as they had last season, but Jardim’s willingness to manage without being wedded to any one approach has paid dividends during his time in Monaco. If he can get the best out of this callow group, the talent is certainly there for similar success, even if it will take a miraculous effort from the manager to do so.
The Guardian Sport